Kitchen confidential

A chef’s home kitchen has got to be serious business, right? Southwest chef Steven Brown goes for bright but basic.

Steven Brown, a popular local chef whose resume includes stints at Porter & Frye, Cafe Levain and the Loring Café, had a trick to cooking in the dark, dated kitchen of the Kingfield home he shares with his wife and daughter.

“I would open up the refrigerator door just to make it brighter,” he says. “It drove me crazy that there was no light.”

Throw in the death of Brown’s vintage yellow range and it was clear his kitchen was sending a message. “We thought about just replacing the oven but one thing led to another and eventually we got the idea to take it all down.”

So what does a well-known chef’s kitchen remodel look like? If you’re picturing a Subzero refrigerator, Thermador range and endless granite countertops, think again. Though estimates came in as high as $40,000, Brown wanted a bang-for-the-buck kitchen with a budget of less than half that. The goal was to maximize the kitchen’s small space while focusing on typical kitchen desires like maintaining the work triangle and opening up counter space.

Due diligence pays

Brown began the project by hiring a contractor recommended by a friend; knowing whom you’re hiring is a vital to Brown, who recommends homeowners at least see examples of a contractor’s previous work.

“That’s a lesson we learned: shop around,” says Brown. He also applied that concept to appliance hunting: Instead of relying solely on the big-box retailers, Brown took to the Internet to search for a stove, sink and dishwasher that would meet his specifications.

“Home stoves are very different than restaurant stoves: They have more insulation, tend to have less heat as far as BTUs for the burners, but also have sealed burners so they’re easier to keep clean,” explains Brown.

To suit his needs, Brown searched for a 30-inch range with knobs that would be out of reach to his toddler. He also wanted an extra-deep double sink and a dishwasher that used two sliding drawers instead of a single drop-open door.  

Luckily, Ebay turned out to be the answer to all those needs. He purchased an Electrolux stove that retails for $5,000 for just $1,500, and an Italian-made stainless steel sink arrived for around $200.

While Brown saw plenty of high-end materials while trolling Craigslist and other sale sites, he decided luxurious upgrades didn’t fit his home.

“This neighborhood is nice, but there’s not a lot of million-dollar homes,” he explains. “If you put in that Subzero refrigerator it’s not money well spent — you won’t see it back when you sell the house.”

One thing that Brown did splurge on was all-wood custom cabinets built by an Amish craftsman. After weighing Ikea as an option (and soliciting feedback about the Swedish company’s materials) Brown decided discount wasn’t the way to go.

“We spent twice as much money as we would have spent at a place like Ikea,” says Brown, but there are no regrets. The caramel-colored cabinets were built in almost the same formation as Brown’s previous kitchen, though he moved the range to a new location because today’s appliances are larger than the vintage pieces that previously populated the kitchen.

(Big) checks and balances

As with any renovation, the project threw several curveballs at Brown that required additional costs. While the Ebay purchases proved to be money savers, unexpected problems added expense in other areas. For example, fire code regulations meant the ceiling had to be dropped to accommodate the recessed lighting he desired (no more using the refrigerator for backup illumination), and the wall soffits that were removed during demolition had to be reinstated in order to vent the stove’s hood.

Brown originally wanted concrete countertops, but when he learned the porous material is prone to staining, he went for a composite quartz material called CaesarStone that has a similar appearance.

“You have to anticipate spending money on something you didn’t expect, and you will have to compromise about what’s going on,” says Brown. “The ceiling cost several thousand, which we didn’t expect, and we could have decided not to put the lights in… but one of the things that drove me crazy about the old kitchen was no light! So you do it.”

When asked if his modern-yet-modest renovation gives him away as a chef Brown says no — especially if people expect chefs to have extravagant kitchens. “There are two things I know about chefs: One is that they hardly ever cook at home because that’s what they’re doing all the time, and two, most don’t make a lot of money,” he explains. “Some make great money, but most live modestly. I think the average chef wage in the Twin Cities is $42,000, so most have modest budgets.”

What makes Brown happiest about his renovated kitchen? It all comes back to the broken oven that inspired the makeover.

“I have an oven that works again,” he says of the new Electrolux. “It was kind of a drag when the other one broke, and the new one is amazing.”

After three straight weeks of eating takeout or grilling while the kitchen was out of commission, having the project finished is another reason Brown’s happy to dole out advice to prospective renovators.

“I think people get intimidated by the process. It helped to do the research and start to really look into the project. It’s one thing to watch HGTV and quite another to actually get started,” says Brown. “These people on TV redo an entire room in an hour, and you start to think ‘Golly, there must be something wrong with me because I can’t do this in a day.’ That’s not the real world.”